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38 years after massive protest, Shoreham nuke plant sits empty

All that's left of the ill-fated Shoreham power

All that's left of the ill-fated Shoreham power plant -- besides $1 billion in debt -- is a vacant concrete structure that housed a nuclear reactor before the facility was decommissioned in 1994. The shuttered plant is seen on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

All that’s left of the ill-fated Shoreham nuclear power plant — besides $1 billion in debt — is a sarcophagus.

That’s what Long Island Power Authority officials call the vacant concrete structure that housed Shoreham’s nuclear reactor before the controversial facility was decommissioned in the 1990s.

The plant’s remains stand on a 60-acre property overlooking the Long Island Sound. The nuclear reactor, or “boiler,” was removed as part of the state-brokered deal to shutter the plant, which never operated.

LIPA, which owns the property, has a substation and other power facilities at the site.

National Grid, which formerly operated the power grid for LIPA, retains ownership of an additional 800 adjacent wooded acres that had been part of the original nuclear plant site. National Grid and Florida-based power company NextEra Energy Resources have proposed a 72-megawatt solar array plant on about half the site; the proposal has encountered opposition from Shoreham residents, environmentalists and Brookhaven Town officials who oppose clearing trees for solar panels. Some elected officials have proposed designating the land as state park property to block the solar plan.

The nuclear plant building is no longer active, despite occasional calls to convert it to other uses.

“A nuclear plant is kind of like a tea kettle,” LIPA chief executive Thomas Falcone said in an interview. “The inner part of the tea kettle was removed. It’s just the sarcophagus of the tea kettle that remains. . . . It’s not a power plant anymore.”

When it was under construction, an estimated 15,000 people rallied in a driving rainstorm outside Shoreham’s gates on June 3, 1979, in the biggest demonstration of any kind in Long Island history.

Two months earlier, a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, sparked a nationwide debate over whether such plants were safe.

Questions about Shoreham’s costs and safety plagued its owner, the Long Island Lighting Co., for more than a decade after the 1979 protest.

With its cost overruns and numerous construction delays — blamed on everything from worker sabotage to poor management by LILCO and the plant’s contractors — Shoreham came to epitomize the failures of the nation’s nuclear industry.

It became the country’s most expensive atomic plant: Originally projected to cost $65 million, Shoreham’s final price tag was nearly $5.5 billion — and it never generated a single watt of power.

The state bought the nuclear plant for $1 in 1992, and Shoreham was decommissioned in 1994 when the last of more than 500 irradiated fuel rods and 5 million pounds of nuclear waste were removed from the plant. The plant’s legacy included $6 billion in debt related to its closure and LIPA taking over LILCO. LIPA officials expect the remaining $1 billion debt to be paid off by about 2026.

Visitors not welcome

The property is no longer subject to radiation testing, but it is mostly off limits to the public.

Facilities on the property are maintained by PSEG Long Island, which operates Long Island’s power grid under contract to LIPA. No LIPA or PSEG staff are stationed there, Falcone said.

“It’s not a safe site, and we wouldn’t encourage people to go there,” he said. “If there’s somebody injured in there . . . it’s not like your cellphone works. It’s an industrial site.”

PSEG operates a substation at the site, as well as a warehouse, an 80-megawatt “peaking” plant that operates only during periods of peak power demands, and infrastructure for a 330-megawatt power cable to Connecticut. A LIPA spokesman said the warehouse contains “utility-related equipment, such as cables and transformers.”

LIPA previously has considered converting the property to a gas-fired plant. A proposal about five years ago to do so ultimately was rejected, but Falcone said the utility remains interested in developing new uses for the site.

“If it comes down to it and we need it for something, we have evaluated it for some uses in the past, and we continue to use it,” he said.

LIPA trustee Matthew Cordaro, who was LILCO’s vice president of engineering in 1979, said that had Shoreham opened, it would have reduced power rates and produced less pollution than coal-fired plants. Instead, it saddled ratepayers with higher bills, he said.

“It was a disaster for the ratepayers,” said Cordaro, who lives a mile from the property. “We are still paying for that plant.”

Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine, who opposed Shoreham as a Suffolk County legislator in the 1980s, said the plant continues to haunt Long Island.

“In the beginning, when Shoreham was announced . . . people thought, ‘This was great, we’re going to have nuclear power and we’re going to have cheaper rates,’ ” Romaine said.

“It didn’t work out that way. As we found out, nuclear power is not the savior. For one thing, it has a short life. It has a 30-year life. If the Shoreham power plant had been opened, it would have been closed by now.”

One and done

Comic Sacha Baron Cohen used the Shoreham plant to shoot a scene in which a dictator launches a nuclear missile for his 2012 comedy, “The Dictator.”

No other movies or television shows have been shot there before or since, a LIPA spokesman said. Over the past year, LIPA has rejected about a dozen requests to film at the plant because work being done on the site makes it unsafe for film crews, he said.

— Carl MacGowan

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